Car Promises That Weren't Kept

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Ever wonder what happened to events in the auto industry that were supposed to occur but didn’t? You might have seen a news story on a site like ours of a promise by an automaker that sounded legitimate with lots of potential, but in the end a decision was made and it never happened. We look back at a few from the past decade.

Lotus’ New Lineup
Think back to November 2010, when Lotus unleashed its soon-to-come lineup into the lower halls of the Los Angeles Auto Show. The niche automaker had four near-production sports cars — the Elite, Esprit, Elan and Elise — plus a four-door concept called the Eterne. All five came fresh from the 2010 Paris Motor Show. The reception in America was phenomenal; Lotus even slapped model years as early as 2013 on some of them.

Turns out we were California dreamin’.

What happened? Lotus owner Proton Holdings Bhd. was part owned (42.7%, specifically) by the Malaysian government. In January 2012, DRB-Hicom Bhd., a company run by Malaysian billionaire Syed Mokhtar, bought out Proton’s state-owned share, and in the following months purchased the remaining shares and privatized the entire company. With the acquisition came a new edict: No future product announcements.

“We don’t know, at this point, to what extent any of those future products are in the works,” Lotus Cars USA spokesman Kevin Smith told us. “We don’t even, frankly, know that much internally right now because they’re not very talkative.”

Lotus Cars USA is a subsidiary of Group Lotus PLC. Components sharing should have hastened development, given all five cars shared around 70% of their parts. Don’t count on seeing them anytime soon, though.

“The one car that was in development when the company changed hands was the Esprit,” Smith said. “What we might see is one or two of those five future cars down the road.”

One Million Plug-Ins
In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama promised 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. It seemed like a typical campaign-trail promise, but Obama stuck to it, reiterating the promise in his 2011 State of the Union speech.

Seems like the campaign promise will come up a bit short.

Despite numerous federal, state and local tax incentives, plug-in sales have trickled. Between December 2010, when the first Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf plug-ins went on sale, and April 2013, U.S. shoppers have bought just more than 95,000 plug-in cars, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association — this despite more than 10 plug-in cars on the market in at least some states.

A million plug-ins were “pie-in-the-sky,” CNW Marketing Research President Art Spinella said. “From the consumer side, it doesn’t make sense.”

CNW regularly surveys the premium consumers will pay for a hybrid or plug-in vehicle over a comparable conventional-gasoline car. “You see some massive fluctuations depending on the price of gasoline, but for the most part it’s a few hundred dollars,” he said.

Unfortunately, pricey battery technology makes plug-in cars considerably more expensive than their gasoline counterparts — even after federal incentives. It’s no surprise, then, that the Department of Energy backed off Obama’s claim in January, instead focusing on boosting charging infrastructure and awarding grants to EV automakers and suppliers.

Chrysler’s EV-Driven Rebirth
While politicians might have gotten the EV boom wrong, one automaker quietly backed away from its EV promise. Chrysler has indeed experienced a rebirth. But it isn’t what you thought it would be if you were at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It was January, and all talk centered on the looming recession. Unemployment had surged 0.5 percent in one month, and Chrysler, cast from Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler to private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, had one foot and three toes in the grave.

But the automaker’s electric-propulsion ENVI division was hard at work. It delivered all-electric concepts of the Town & Country minivan and Jeep Wrangler SUV in September 2008 along with a Dodge EV sports car concept. A few months later at the Detroit auto show Chrysler debuted a Jeep Patriot EV and a sleek plug-in 200C sedan concept. With extended-range capabilities similar to the Chevrolet Volt, the 200C concept was based on a shortened version of the rear-drive Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. We called for Chrysler to build it. Alas, little of the car made it to production beyond some styling cues in the front-drive Sebring-turned-200.

“I won’t necessarily single out Chrysler,” IHS Automotive analyst Devin Lindsay said. “At that time, in that environment, really globally, everyone was interested in coming out with products that would really steer us away from gasoline.”

Ultimately, the Detroit automaker was too weak to deliver. Chrysler filed for bankruptcy less than four months later, demolishing Cerberus’ 80% stake and leaving a slew of projects in its wake — including the EVs. In late 2009, with Fiat in the driver’s seat, Chrysler disbanded ENVI.

What has led to Chrysler’s rebirth? Redesigned SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and trucks like the new Ram 1500.

Diesel Light-Duty Pickups
Back in 2006, Ford said it would bestow a diesel V-8 to its popular F-150 pickup. GM jumped on board a year later, announcing it would add a 4.5-liter diesel V-8 to 1500 versions of the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado. And in 2008, Toyota promised the same for the Tundra. Finally, light-duty pickup shoppers could have the sort of torque-rich engines typically reserved for medium- and heavy-duty trucks!

Well, no. None of the projects came to fruition; today’s light-duty pickups still employ gasoline engines.

“It was very much in product plans — these people were absolutely true to their word,” said Andrew Smart, who directs programs and industry relations for the Society of Automotive Engineers. But then the move toward direct-injection and turbocharging took over.

“That was something else that took the eye away from it,” he added. So did the price of diesel fuel, which eclipsed premium unleaded and reduced the advantages of diesel engines’ fuel efficiency — particularly for non-business consumers, Smart said.

Diesel light-duty pickups aren’t done yet. Chrysler announced in February it would have one in the 2014 Ram 1500. We’ll have to wait and see if that plays out — or if it’s 2006 all over again.

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

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